Building Political Power: 4 Keys to Electing Women

Women Summit photo
Betsy Cotton addressing the Women’s Policy Summit 2014 in Sacramento

When it comes to women’s representation shaping public policy in the state legislature, California is on a backward slide and in danger of dipping even lower in the 2014 election.  A decade ago, women made up nearly 31% of the California Legislature now we are treading water at 26%.

Research tells us there are many reasons women don’t run – family obligations, loss of privacy, the negativity of elections – to name a few. There are several affirmative steps that could stop the slide if leaders and institutions were serious about achieving gender equity. Consider these:

Recruitment:  The biggest reason for the small number of women in office is that not enough women run. There are plenty of talented, accomplished women who would serve if asked. Research shows that unlike men who will jump into a race, women respond positively to being asked. close the gap CA was formed to do recruiting, and recruiting only. We look for the best opportunities – winnable open seats, work with local activists to identify talented progressive women and with the help of women who have served, recruit these women to run. Recruiting alone won’t get us to parity, but more of it will get us back on track.

Political Parties:  Legislative leaders in the parties also influence who runs and who doesn’t. Isn’t it about time parity be a central mission of both parties? Adopt specific goals – number or percentage – of female candidates fielded and supported in each election cycle. More than 100 countries have adopted affirmative measures to ensure more equitable gender representation in their legislative bodies, many through policies instituted in their political party system. Parity will not happen magically. Electing women needs to be a priority supported by those in party and legislative leadership, and women in the party should hold their leaders accountable.

Institutional Barriers in the Legislature:  Modest pay.  No childcare.  Long and erratic session hours.  Unpredictable schedule.   Constant deadlines.  It’s no wonder women are not jumping at the chance to run for office. You have to be Superwoman to make life in the legislature and family life work.  How about California adopting family-friendly rules and procedures to meet the needs of women who want to serve?  Historically, most women have waited until their children were grown to seek office. We need public service to be an option for all women.

Institutional barriers in Elections:  Research shows that women candidates fare better in elections that include multi-member districts as opposed to the primary mode of electing representatives (i.e. single member districts with winner take all voting).  In fact, six of the top ten states with the most women serving in their legislatures have at least one chamber where multiple members represent a district. One explanation for this may be simply that multi-member districts produce multiple winners giving women and non-majority candidates a better chance at finishing among the top vote getters. Another is that running a gender-balanced slate may be seen as more politically attractive. Ranked Choice voting, used in several Bay Area cities, is also believed to help level the playing field for women and non-majority candidates. With Ranked Choice voting, it behooves candidates to run a positive campaign. These types of elections may be more inviting to women interested in serving but turned off by negative campaigning.

Women’s advocates have tried many ways to increase political power, from chaining themselves to gates, to enduring hunger strikes, to standing on the floor of a state legislature and speaking to the reproductive health needs of the state’s women for nearly twelve hours. No one said it would be easy. To truly succeed in increasing women’s political power, barriers must come down and more women must run. To speed progress, we need to adopt a combination of both voluntary and mandatory measures.  Then we have a shot at knowing what men and women working together can do to achieve a more fair and just California.
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